Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels were by far the bestselling books of the 2010s, kickstarting an erotica and kink boom. But did it lead to lasting change?
I was working as a bookseller when Fifty Shades of Grey was published and spent weeks stacking shelves with the glossy tomes, only for them to be whisked away as soon as they arrived. I soon amassed a range of excuses from customers who so often seemed to be embarrassed to be buying what everyone else was buying. “I’m getting it for my wife,” men announced, unprompted, while women – often younger than the label “mummy porn” suggested – would recount whole conversations with unnamed friends who had deemed the erotic thriller “quite good”.
The trilogy by EL James, the writing moniker of the British author Erika Leonard, was published between 2011 and 2012. Late last year it was announced that they had been the runaway bestselling books of the decade. In the UK alone, Fifty Shades of Grey sold 4.7m print copies, Fifty Shades Darker sold 3.3m and Fifty Shades Freed sold 3.1m. (The fourth biggest-selling book, Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals, sold 1.8m.) At its peak, two copies of the first book sold every second; for a time, the UK ran out of silver ink, thanks to its use on the books’ covers. Worldwide, by 2015, more than 150m copies had sold, with millions more ebooks on top. But alongside the huge number of copies sold, was there a lasting cultural influence?